The decline of the Grand Old Party into an angry mob is gaining momentum, with crackpot rage displacing common sense on every major issue from public finance to marriage rights.

An ominous signal of this transformation emanated last week from John McCain, who has been a sometime voice of rationality on such sensitive partisan matters as torture, climate change and immigration. Now he, too, has descended into demagoguery by falsely claiming that illegal immigrants are behind the spread of destructive wildfires in Arizona.

Insisting that there is “substantial evidence” to support his racially inflammatory accusation, the Arizona senator could produce none, and neither could his staff. Instead, there is, as The Washington Post noted, not even a shred of evidence that immigrants set those fires. Nobody knows yet why the borderlands blazed, but the U.S. Forest Service has blamed an “escaped campfire” — and indicated clearly that there is no reason to believe that illegal immigrants are to blame.

Stoking racial and ethnic hostility in the South and West is an old political tactic, yet what may be more harmful is the squandered opportunity symbolized by McCain’s ugly outburst. Not so many years ago, he had joined with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in leading the nation toward a realistic compromise on immigration, coupling a path toward citizenship for undocumented workers and their families with strict border controls and visa enforcement.

During the years between his two presidential campaigns, McCain and his top aides even created a think tank, the Reform Institute, to advance sensible immigration policy, among other sane ideas. Supporters of the institute and its platform ranged from the usual Republican corporate donors to George Soros, an immigrant from Hungary who has long advocated humane treatment of immigrants and refugees, both here and abroad.

Momentum toward a workable solution on immigration was lost amid polarizing rhetoric and presidential ambitions well before the 2008 campaign, when McCain finally surrendered to the worst elements in his own party on many issues. But the chances for change have improved lately, with a rapid fall in illegal border crossing and a sharp improvement in border enforcement.

There is no such thing as perfect immigration control, but federal agencies report that the Mexican border is more secure now than it has been for many years, thanks to increased patrol resources provided by the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as economic conditions. Over the past six years, illegal crossings are down by roughly 50 percent.

Or at least the chances for change should have improved with better security, since most Americans still support enforcement-plus-citizenship, as polls have long indicated they do. Yet while President Obama has continued to promote reform, there is nobody on the Republican side prepared to talk compromise, let alone negotiate a deal.

Now, the Republican politicians who once stood up for bipartisan progress, like McCain, prefer pandering to the xenophobic and hateful factions who increasingly dominate their party base.

The divisions and dislocations caused by illegal immigration present a real problem in American society, but it is a problem with a solution that has been well known for years. The much greater problem is that we no longer have two political parties with a will toward finding and implementing such solutions. We have a party of responsible government that seeks to preserve American institutions — and we have a party of feckless fakers who do nothing but exploit resentment.

The latest McCain misadventure is a troubling reflection not just on him, but on the future of his party — and perhaps the fate of his country. He helped to complete the intellectual ruin of the Republicans when he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. With their hostility to science, their appeals to bigotry and their economic quackery, exactly what makes the Republicans fit to govern a leading nation on a troubled, globalizing planet? That is the hidden question of the coming election.


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